Ascension Day does not get nearly as much attention as most any of the other holy days on our church calendars. On Christmas Eve and Easter we can expect the church to be full. We certainly would never think of canceling our Good Friday Service. But on Ascension Day several churches will often combine their services in order to have at least a few people in their pews.
I remember several years ago, when delegates to Classis debated whether or not to have their regular Classis Meeting on the usual Thursday in May in spite of the fact that it was Ascension Day. When one minister objected, saying that neither he nor his Elder would be able to attend the Classis Meeting because their church has a worship service that evening, another minister muttered, “Well, why?” That seems to be the typical attitude given to Ascension Day. We see it as a lesser holy day.
I would suggest to you that Ascension Day is one of the most important days that the church can celebrate. It is just as important as Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. I can understand not having a special service for Epiphany, or not gathering for Ash Wednesday, or All Saints’ Day. I could even forgo Palm Sunday except that it always falls on a Sunday and we are all in church anyway. But to give up Ascension Day is to miss a very important aspect of Christ’s life. It is to miss His glory and exaltation. It also represents His continual work for us, His people.
Perhaps the reason we fail to celebrate Ascension Day as we should, is because we fail to see what Jesus is doing in heaven on behalf of His people. We focus, rather on the completeness of the atonement of Jesus Christ upon the cross. We speak of His once-forall sacrifice made on our behalf at Calvary and then we confess that “He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” What else could this mean but that Jesus has been enthroned victoriously in the heavens and is now resting from His labors?
We certainly would not begrudge Jesus a little vacation time before “He comes to judge the living and the dead.” After living a perfectly obedient life, and after bearing the punishment and wrath of God on our behalf, we expect Him to rest a while.
Our High Priest
The Book of Hebrews tells us otherwise. Hebrews tells us that in heaven Jesus performs for us all the duties of the Old Testament High Priest. In the Old Testament, the High Priest was permitted to enter into the Holy of Holies once a year. Within the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant with the mercy seat of God. The mercy seat represented the throne of God. In Hebrews 9:24 we are told “For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.”
Did you catch that last phrase? “Now to appear in the presence of God for us.” Jesus comes into the presence of God not for His own sake, but for ours. And He comes not before the Ark of the Covenant, as the Old Testament High Priest did, but before the very presence of God Himself as our High Priest.
You may recall that the Old Testament Priest was one who would represent the people to God. He would be the one appointed by God to make all the necessary sacrifices and say all the necessary prayers on behalf of the people.
The author of Hebrews tells us, that when we have Jesus Christ as our High Priest, we are a lot better off than the people in the Old Testament were with their High Priest. First of all, our High Priest does not have to make any sacrifices for His own sins, as did the Old Testament High Priest, because our High Priest, Jesus Christ, is sinless. Second, our High Priest does not work out of the temple in Jerusalem; our High Priest in is heave. Third, our High Priest is not limited to entering the Holy of Holies once a year; the ascended High Priest is in the Holy of Holies every day, all the time. And fourth, our High Priest does not come before the mercy seat, which represents the presence of God; because He has ascended into heaven, He is in the very presence of the Most High God.
So, the truth of the matter is, Jesus did not go on a sabbatical until the Judgment Day. Instead, we have a High Priest who continually, day after day, week after week, year after year, acts out His job as High Priest by representing us to God.
The crucified, risen, and ascended Son of God appears before the Almighty God as a living sacrifice for our sin. Hebrews 7:25 tells us “He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” That is something Mohammed cannot offer. Nor can Buddha, Moloch, Baal, or any other god.
We have the assurance of the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life given to us because the crucified and risen Lord ascended into heaven and performs there the rituals of the priesthood. That is, He represents us to God. When we come into the presence of the Most High God and stand on the scales of His Law, we know that we will be guilty. We have, after all, broken God’s Law and add to our sin and misery every day. However, we also know that our sacrifice for sin, Jesus Christ, will be right there with us! We do not come before the altar of God empty-handed. We come with our sacrifice: our faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, our Perfect Sacrifice has ascended into the heavens before us and prepares the way for us.
For Our Remembrance
The practical value of this is incredible! It means that the sacrifice of Christ is not merely something that happened 2000 years ago. It is something that is eternally in the presence of the Father. Not only are we called to remember and believe that the sacrifice of Christ was given for a complete remission of all our sins; but the Father also is constantly called upon to remember that sacrifice made by His Son. How can He forget? That sacrifice, made for our sin, is constantly before Him, seated at His right hand.
Remember why God put the rainbow in the sky? We usually say that the rainbow is there to remind us that God will never again destroy the world with a flood. Genesis 9:12-16 are very clear in telling us that the rainbow is put in the sky to remind God that He has promised never to destroy the world in such a fashion again. So also, the Son of God, standing beside the Father as our Priest, reminds the Father that the sacrifice was already made for our sin.
Jesus speaks to the Father about every member of the Great Shepherd’s flock. His mediation, intercession, and healing is a continuous work of Jesus. Through grace, this work is done for all of God’s children. And it certainly is cause for celebrating and remembering in worship every Ascension Day.
Rev. Wybren H. Oord is the pastor of the Covenant United Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He also serves as Editor of The Outlook.